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The agile - and non-stop - workplace: Can you keep up?

Small teams doing a bit at a time, all the time, seems to be the new organisational pattern.

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"All the layers and specialisation are breaking down. Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week." - Douglas Safford, Allstate's VP of technology innovation (above)

WHETHER you like it or not, your boss may want you to start acting more like a programmer. A new management concept called "agile computing" has been adopted in offices, ranging from a museum in Sydney to a car dealership in Maine to the tech department at insurance giant Allstate.

The "agile" part of this increasingly popular management concept is simple: Rather than try to do giant projects that take months or even years, create small teams that do a bit at a time. This way, small problems don't balloon into enormous ones, hidden inside a huge bureaucracy.

And progress can be measured in small steps as well - one little project at a time. The small tech company Twilio, for example, uses agile computing; under this way of working, its employees churn out 40 changes to its product every day.

The idea of agile computing has been around for at least 15 years, but it wasn't until recently that this sort of employee organisation found its way from the tech industry to other industries, or even into the technology departments of other companies. People may not realise that it is these subtler aspects of how tech companies are run that often have a more lasting effect on other industries.

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Silicon Valley has changed how we work, for better or worse. Our smartphones keep us connected to the office all the time; Internet searches bring the world's information to our fingertips.

Douglas Safford, Allstate's vice-president of technology innovation, said: "All the layers and specialisation are breaking down.

" Instead of a year, we want to put an idea in front of a customer in a week."

Tech culture has been finding its way into other industries for a while. Decades ago, Intel's founders tried to create an egalitarian culture, where the chief executive sat among his employees, and everyone at the company shared in the risks and rewards through stock options. More recently, Google's drive to take care of employees' everyday needs, like commuting or dry cleaning - all so they can focus on work - has been adopted, but with mixed success in other industries.

Now cloud computing - putting your data or your software on the servers of a giant data centre that is accessible through the Internet - is having an outsize influence. Cloud computing (a technology) and agile computing (a management concept) have proved to be a potent combination for creating and tweaking products faster than the competition.

New technologies and the management ideas that come with them have always presented risks to rank-and-file workers. E-mail improved communications and helped do away with a layer of management that was responsible for that communication inside big companies. Global fibre networks tied the world together and made it easier for jobs to be outsourced to other countries; automation and robotics have wiped out countless manufacturing jobs.

With cloud computing, the risk - at least for now - appears more subtle. The average worker may have more flexible hours. What that can really mean is workers are expected to work all the time, and are expected to react faster to bosses' demands with more varied skills. Pamela Hinds, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford, said: "Work has changed, and everyone needs more expertise, more consultation. There's more speed with which projects have to get out because of competition, and people are pulled on and off projects much more."

At the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney, a government-mandated transition from traditional computers to cloud-computing systems has led to everyone planning exhibitions and raising money on Jira, a software development tool for managing cloud projects quickly.

Dan Collins, head of digital and media at the museum, said: "We change light bulbs on Jira. It's how we plan all our exhibitions.

"Things move a lot faster, with fewer meetings. Tools are more important than organisational charts."

At Newcastle Chrysler, a car dealership in Newcastle, Maine, a former coder named Alex Miner installed a coding product called Hipchat throughout the family business. Like Jira, Hipchat is made by Atlassian, a company known for software development tools.

Mr Miner said: "Everything's a lot more audited by sensors. I can tell one PSI off pressure in a tyre from anywhere in the company and react to that." (PSI stands for pounds per square inch.)

"The older guys in sales don't want to adopt the new tech, but the service guys, they work together and they get it; the velocity is advancing everywhere."

Tech industry coders are known for their all-night binges, so it is not surprising that copying the way they operate is leading to concerns about work taking over the rest of one's life. Mr Collins said: "There's a lot of talk around the water cooler about how easy it is to pick up more work when you get home." Some museum workers have found other cloud-based tools to compensate - ones that shut off access to work after, say, 7pm. However, there is also a question of identity in this new workplace: If you are asked to be flexible and jump from one little project to another without hesitation, what sense of ownership do you have of your work?

If agile-type work is the new organisational pattern, it will be in a long tradition of companies styling themselves after the technology they consume.

Ryan Mullenix, an architect based in Seattle with NBBJ, a global corporate architecture and design firm, said: "Now, we're trying to figure out the right ways to collaborate. Brief periods of personal control become a huge thing - stuff like individual lighting or heat, or a quiet corner where you can sit alone."

Chef, a maker of tools for building cloud software, now sends consultants to its customers to explain to employees how all this is going to work. Chef's chief executive Barry Crist said: "We don't talk about work-life balance anymore. It's work-life mix.

"If you need to be home at four, then put your kid to bed and make up for it at 10 pm, that's fine. Younger people now want flux in their day, and they don't want to turn off the information, ever."

And what if you don't want to live like a coder, perpetually crashing on a project? Allstate's Mr Safford says "good luck".

"A third jump in, a third resist but come on board, and a third try to hide. I have conversations that amount to, 'Do you want to die on the hill? Do you think this is going away?'" NYTIMES

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